No Christmas miracle for parents or the childcare sector – but we have much to be proud of in 2023

As we reflect on 2023 we are incredibly proud of the achievements of our charity team – each month over the past year our Family Benefits Advice Service has identified a massive £1 million in additional financial support for hard-pressed families. This is money directly back in parents’ pockets, that they didn’t realise they were entitled to – which as well as helping hard-pressed families, ultimately also benefits our economy.

Since 2008, when our Family Benefits Advice Service began, we have now identified over £105 million in financial support for families across the UK. It’s a huge amount, and it has only been possible as a result of our Social Enterprise business activities – enabling us to invest £7.4 million in our charity during that time.  So we owe a huge thank you to everyone who has made the decision to ‘buy social’ and support our Social Enterprise businesses – whether that’s employers providing our Childcare Vouchers to their employees, families visiting High Rise or local childcare providers using our services to support their recruitment.

Despite all this great work, it is however hugely frustrating that parents here continue to fall further behind in terms of the support available with their registered childcare costs. In the year that saw the UK Chancellor announce an extension to the 30 hours free childcare scheme in England, families here are still waiting for the long-overdue additional support they have been telling us for so many years that they need. With no local Executive in place, progress on our promised Early Learning and Childcare Strategy has been delayed, and more and more parents are struggling to afford the childcare they need to work.

Similarly our childcare sector is facing unprecedented and increasing challenges, not least as a result of the increase in the National Living Wage from April 2024, which will put even more pressure on costs and result in further fee rises. The warm words we heard so often during the Covid-19 pandemic about the value of our childcare sector has, unfortunately, not translated into the support these dedicated early years professionals so desperately need.

Frustratingly we know that our local political parties understand that high quality, affordable childcare is vital to our economy and must be invested in accordingly – to support parents to work, to support our childcare sector and its workforce to continue to deliver the high quality childcare parents value, and to support the long-term development of our children. Our work over the past two decades, in leading high quality research, lobbying and awareness raising, and recently through the work of the All Party Group in particular, has played a key role in ensuring childcare is now seen as critical economic infrastructure.

However, with no Executive in place, the new Strategy cannot be delivered, and parents, families and our childcare sector continue to wait for the support that is so urgently needed, and long overdue. As the clock ticks down to the end of 2023, we had been presented with a faint glimmer of hope that a political deal may be done to allow a return of Government, but that is fading fast, and it looks like we will enter 2024 with more hope than optimism.

On a brighter note, we have been delighted to this year celebrate a full year since our newest Social Enterprise, High Rise family adventure centre in Lisburn, reopened. We have been thrilled to welcome thousands of guests to enjoy all that High Rise has to offer from Northern Ireland’s largest Clip ‘n Climb arena to our newly extended soft play area, our two interactive sensory rooms and our meeting and event spaces. To hear the squeals of delight on a busy Saturday afternoon is truly heart-warming.

The feedback from our guests continues to be phenomenal – 96% of guests in our most recent survey rated their visit to High Rise as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ with 100% saying they would recommend High Rise to others.  We are so proud of our wonderful staff team, who every single day go over and above to provide the positive customer service that our guests value so much. Thank you to each and every one of them.

We look forward to welcoming many more guests – families, school groups, youth organisations, charities, churches and corporate groups – through our doors in 2024. And best of all, every single visit to High Rise, whether a baby enjoying soft play or a local business hosting a team-building away day, helps us to continue the vital work of our charity, supporting parents to get into and stay in work – of that we are proud every day.

We’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has supported us in 2023 and to wish you all a peaceful and happy Christmas and New Year. We’ll keep the new Early Learning and Childcare Strategy at the very top of our Christmas list again this year, and look forward to continuing our work on behalf of parents, childcare providers and employers in 2024.

Please note our office is closed for the Christmas holidays from Monday 25 December to Wednesday 27 December (inclusive) and again on Monday 1 January. No Childcare Vouchers will be processed on these dates.